I’m running a little behind on my top 15s to keep up with Brad’s “Way Too Early” rankings, so I’ll be looking to get 2B and 3B out this week, and maybe even SS.
The middle infield positions really saw some of the biggest gains in 2016 thanks to the leaguewide power surge. I thought the position ran pretty deep in last year’s drafts, but I think it’s even deeper now. I’m only rolling out 15 here and there are another 10 I’d be OK slotting in as my starting 2B, let alone putting them at the MI slot. Yes, the upper tier is obviously better, but after that it really starts to cluster.
Let’s just get into it!
Jose Altuve | Astros – I’m coming out firing with big surprises at the top, eh? Altuve showed that the 2015 power jump wasn’t a fluke by adding to it. He nearly doubled his HR/FB rate and popped 24 homers, more than he had the past two seasons combined (22). There was a cost, though. His stolen bases dropped for the second straight season, including a major falloff in the second half which seemed to be tied to his move into the third spot of the lineup.
He batted third in every game from July 10th on and went just 7-for-14 on the bases, after going 23-for-26 in his first 88 games. I think there are some valid concerns that Altuve will fail to reach 30 SBs for the first time in his career, but a .310-20-20-100-100 season is still unquestionably elite and the 27-year old is still easily the top 2B for me.
Trea Turner | Nationals – It’s pretty shocking that Turner didn’t enter the lineup until July considering that Danny Espinosa, Ben Revere, and Michael Taylor were all awful through June. Even with a 1.122 OPS in June, Espinosa was only at .787 because his April and May were so bad. Meanwhile, Turner was acquitting himself well in a second tour of Triple-A, finishing with an .842 OPS before finally earning a full time spot with the big league club.
He showed surprising punch in a tremendous 73-game run in the majors. His 13 home runs were one shy of what he did in 871 minor league plate appearances in 2015-16. He might only repeat that total in a full season next year, but his SB, AVG, and R contributions will elevate him into a top player. I see something like .290-90-14-60-40 atop a quality lineup in Washington.
Robinson Cano | Mariners – Cano’s explosive 2016 wasn’t just commensurate with the league’s power surge. He went above and beyond with 39 HRs (career-best) and a .235 ISO (his 2nd-best) that helped yield his first 100/100 R/RBI season since 2011. His first half in 2015 weighed down his season (.926 OPS in 2H) and with his excellent 2016, it now sticks out like a sore thumb.
He’s going to be 34 years old which will scare some, but he hasn’t had a DL stint since 2006 – the only one of his career – and his combination of power (.191 career ISO) and contact (.307 AVG, 12% K) should age very well and the market will recognize it. He’s been going in the second round of drafts I’ve done so far, but I think he’ll be there in the third and fourth of many drafts which I’ll be all over.
Daniel Murphy | Nationals – I missed hard on Murphy last year. I was easily the lowest rank, slotting him 20th while the consensus had him 10th. I was dubious on the power increase from the playoffs, failing to realize it actually started in August of 2015, so it was a three-month sampling of the new approach. He showed it was real and then some this season with an amazing career year effort. I think his batting average comes down back to something in the low-.300s, but I don’t see much else really falling off. Maybe a couple fewer 2B, HR, and RBI, but still a total stud.
Brian Dozier | Twins – Dozier has increased his home run count yearly as a major leaguer: 6, 18, 23, 28, and 42. His HR/FB rate has risen in concert, though his 2016 rate didn’t jump to some completely unsustainable. At 18%, it was 34th-highest among qualified hitters. He could drop back toward his 13% career mark in 2017, but he has a power-focused profile that included the highest pull percentage (56%) and 3rd-highest flyball rate (48%) so a jump in HR/FB is hardly shocking.
Meanwhile, he doesn’t get enough love for his efficiency on the bases. He has a career 77% SB rate and was up at 90% this year (18-for-20). I think we start with a 30 HR/15 SB projection and go from there. His .268 AVG this year is the high end, I’d plan for something in the .245 range and build my team expecting deficient batting average from him. He has also quietly scored 100+ runs each of the last three seasons thanks in part to a strong walk rate that offsets some of the OBP pain inflicted by his AVG.
Ian Kinsler | Tigers – Kinsler took full advantage of the power spike, running his HR/FB rate up to 13% – his highest since 2011 – and hitting as many homers (28) as he had in the last two years combined. He has remained a consistently strong second baseman into his 30s thanks to success in the underrated categories: R, RBI, and AVG. He has averaged 100 runs and 78 RBIs while hitting .278 in the five seasons since turning 30. Injuries were a problem in his 20s, but he’s had just one DL stint since 2013. There’s some risk at age-35, but as I constantly mention, the market will price that in given a general aversion to age.
Jean Segura | Diamondbacks – OK Segura, I see you. You got me. I was out on Segura until he showed something again. He had the 2013 first half breakout, but then a pair of disastrous seasons thereafter. He did deal with personal tragedy in that time and it’s impossible to say how much that played a role, but you could certainly understand if it stuck with him and impacted his play on the field. A trade to Arizona might’ve served him well on many levels.
He was already playing in a hitter-friendly environment with Milwaukee, but Arizona is even better, especially for extra-base hits which is more his game than homers. He put together quite a debut there. He came out of the gate firing with an .885 OPS and 4 HRs in 116 PA, but then hit just 1 HR in his next 230 PA so while the performance was better than 2H 2013, it looked like another tease from Segura. Instead, he exploded in the second half with a .329/.381/.572 line that included 14 HRs and 18 SBs – figures that would’ve worked as full season totals given his recent performance.
Segura hit fewer groundballs, hit the ball harder, and nearly tripled his walk rate (albeit to just 6%) en route to a career season. His 14% HR/FB rate is higher than his last two seasons if you added them together (10%), so it’s likely to come down in 2017, but honestly the 20 HRs are probably the least important aspect of his line. Look for a total in the 11-14 range, but if the R, AVG, and SB numbers hold or improve, he’ll still be a stud.
DJ LeMahieu | Rockies – Coors is the best! LeMahieu led baseball in batting average (.348) thanks in large part to a filthy .420 BABIP at home that yielded a .391 AVG in 335 PA. His .303 road AVG was a career-best, too, so it’s not like it was only Coors. Like so many 2B, he essentially doubled his HR/FB rate en route to a career-high HR total, but the AVG and runs drive his value. In fact, lost in the big season is the fact that he was just 11-for-18 on the bases, dropping his career success rate to 69% (maybe not so nice?). I’d love to get a mid-teens SB total out of LeMahieu, but even without it, I’m comfortable slotting him in as my starting 2B and just letting Coors (and a strong lineup) do its thing.
Jason Kipnis | Indians – Stop me if you’ve heard this: he nearly doubled his HR/FB rate (from 7% to 13%) and enjoyed a career-high home run total (23). Kipnis finally showed the pop worthy of his consistently high draft slots, though it was offset a bit by his second season of low double-digit stolen bases after 31, 30, and 22 in 2012-14. I’ve never been as into Kipnis as most and this season doesn’t really change that. It was unquestionably a good season, but adjusting for league context yields a similar dollar value to his 2015 in the standard 5×5 fantasy categories.
Matt Carpenter | Cardinals – A strained oblique cost him a month which was essentially the difference between his 2015 and 2016. If you pace his 2016 totals to his 2015 plate appearances, he would’ve had lost just 3 homers, 4 RBIs, and 6 runs – modest dips across the board. He altered his batting ball profile for the power gains in 2015 and showed it was real in 2016. He also crushed the ball this season (3rd-highest Hard Contact rate) and I feel confident in betting on a mid-20s homer count with good R/RBI totals and a .270-something AVG.
Rougned Odor | Rangers – I like Odor, I do, but he’s far from fully developed and I’m reluctant to look at his 2016 as a building block toward more in 2017. In other words, it’s worth remembering the phrase that “growth isn’t linear” when it comes to young players because I think we could see a step back at age-23 as the league readjusts to him. It’s easy to get drunk on the 33 HRs, but he sold out for the power and saw his K and BB rates get worse while his OBP fell below .300.
He had 12 homers fall in the “Just Enough/Lucky” classification on Hit Tracker Online, so even a repeat of his batted ball profile won’t necessarily yield the same returns in 2017. He’ll be a solid starting 2B, but the depth of the position and warts in his profile will have me looking elsewhere if he continues to come at a top-five round cost. The speed is even more suspect as the 14 SBs came on a 67% success rate and he’s a horrific 24-for-45 (53%) for his career. Hang on in keeper leagues because he’s likely cheap and won’t be a total dud, but fade him in redrafts with an elevated cost.
Jonathan Schoop | Orioles – If I’m going to express concerns about Odor, I have to do the same with Schoop. His career-best 25 homers were due more to a career-high in playing time as opposed to growth. His ISO and HR/FB both dipped and like Odor, his OBP fell below .300. Schoop did shave his strikeout rate down to 21% (after back-to-back 25% seasons), but maintained his meager 3% walk rate. This is exactly what I mean with growth not being linear, though.
Despite some falloff, this was a good first full season for Schoop. Grinding out six months in the majors isn’t easy and it’s why extrapolation of half seasons is such a bad method of forecasting. Schoop stayed healthy, put up a viable 2-win season, and even had the one aspect of growth (K%) to build upon for 2017. There’s still mid-30s punch in this bat and he’s only going into his age-25 season. He had the fourth-highest total of “No Doubt” homers with 12. Three players tied at 15 slotted him sixth, but either way it’s clear his power isn’t in question. I remain high on Schoop’s future.
Dee Gordon | Marlins – I don’t think Gordon’s success was just a product of PEDs, but his suspension did come as a shock because wrongly associate them exclusively with power. So this ranking isn’t just in response to that and his uninspired line over the 79 games he did play which netted a .641 OPS, but rather due in large part to the fact that steals-only assets just aren’t worth as much with the home run surge across the league. Yes, steals are drying up which can make someone like Gordon appealing, but the near-zero you get in homers places a burden on the rest of your lineup and thus drastically alters your draft approach the rest of the way.
Javier Baez | Cubs – It’s easy to fall for Baez. Just watch him play a few games and chances are you’ll see something awesome. However, he reminded us of his limitations in the World Series, going just 5-for-30 with 13 strikeouts. Yes, it’s a small sample, but it’s a sample we’ve seen before: he tries to hit a nine-run homer every time up and instead flails so badly that he strikes out after just two pitches. Yes, just two.
He did cut his K% to 24% this year which was a substantial gain for him, but still caps his AVG upside, especially with a meager 3% BB rate. Baez is up there hacking and while it serves him well when he’s on, it fosters a volatility that can be problematic, especially in H2H leagues. There’s an overflow of talent here, it’s obvious, but harnessing it is still a work in progress.
Baez is likely to be overdrafted, but there’s enough upside to justify it within reason. It doesn’t take a series of logistical leaps to see him jumping a couple levels where he cuts his strikeouts to about 20%, starts walking 5-6% of the time, and has a .280-20-20 season. But if you draft him in the 5th or 6th round, he has to do something like that, whereas if you get him 2-3 rounds later, you can afford essentially a repeat of his 2016 rates with 200 more PA (pushing him to 650). Be smart here.
Dustin Pedroia | Red Sox – I labored over this last spot and eventually just decided on solid-but-unspectacular Pedroia. It’s hard to ignore the batting average and runs he offers even with his SBs essentially toast and HRs just kinda whatever. He’ll continue to hold a top spot in a great lineup and as long as he stays healthy, he’ll be good.
Of course, the health piece is up in the air for a 33-year old with lost games in three of the last five seasons. He’s way more floor than ceiling so your team construction will likely dictate whether you’re more interested in him or someone like the younger guys included in these next five listed below. I think I’d personally wait and take a Panik or Travis, but Pedroia will be still be a perfectly useful piece.